Empower students, don’t disenfranchise them

Students are a vital part of the communities we represent. Government has a duty to remove the barriers they face when registering to vote, argues Rosie Duffield

Like many other university cities, the Labour party’s remarkable 2017 success in Canterbury has been attributed to the student vote. In reality however, the ‘student vote’ is just one factor among many that swung this famous city of archbishops, hops and pilgrimages to the left for the first time in its history; in June, I was elected to serve a constituency that stretches from the coast at Whitstable into deepest Kentish countryside.

I was thrilled to hear reports on polling day of long lines of students queuing to vote in key wards in Canterbury. There were similar reports countrywide of student turnout being up. This of course was unsurprising: the prime minister had called a June election. Three of the previous four general elections since the Millennium had called the country to the ballot box in early May, a time when students are often away from the towns in which they study for their Easter break. A June election is seen by some as a boon for left-wing campaigns in university towns: you could palpably hear constituency Labour parties in Cambridge, Exeter, Bristol, Sheffield, Norwich and, yes even Canterbury, breathe out a little. The chase of the metaphorical Tory goose was on.

The Conservatives have long known that May (no, not that one!) is to their advantage. In the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, it provides for elections to generally be held on the ‘first Thursday in May of the fifth year after the previous general election’. This means that students – even if they are back cramming for summer exams in their term-time digs – often miss out on vital registration deadlines through being elsewhere for the Easter break. That is why I was so pleased to hear of many university chancellors’ efforts to boost student registration for the electoral roll this year. It is impossible to know nationally how many students registered as the data is not broken down into category of voter by profession or occupation; however, on 22 May 2017, the deadline to register to vote, the number of under 25s applying to register was over 246,000 of the 622,000 applications, almost 40 per cent of applications. In my constituency, the registrations in the halls of residence for both University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University totalled 3690. Furthermore, adding in students in privately rented digs, the council estimate for the total number of students registered to vote in Canterbury is 6852. I only have a majority of 187; the student vote in this corner of Kent is clearly a key and vital one for anyone looking to sit as the member of parliament.

Example of good practice regarding student registration can be seen in the University of Sheffield pilot of 2015/16. This pilot saw the proportion of eligible University of Sheffield students living within the city boundary registered to vote reaching 76 per cent compared to a figure for those at neighbouring Sheffield Hallam University of about 13 per cent. Sheffield city council worked with the university to include a section at the end of the university’s online registration process for the beginning of the academic year. Students were offered the option to register to vote and taken to a next page which had been pre-populated with some of the information already provide in the university registration process. The only additional information required was the student’s national insurance number (a requirement for anyone registering to vote) and to say whether they wanted a postal vote or not. So, while not mandatory, this route made everything easy to find and easy to complete. I would like to see universities across the United Kingdom roll out similar provision as part of their own registration processes and it is something I shall be raising for discussion with the vice chancellors in my own constituency.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017, passed just before parliament dissolved for the general election in June, includes a provision which is aimed to encourage higher education institutions to work with electoral registration officers in their local area to increase student registration. This only applies to England and ministerial guidance is due to be issued in 2018. I will be keeping a close eye out for this guidance and I will be holding the government to account on their promised timeframe for delivery. At the committee stage of the same bill back in 2016, Jo Johnson, Conservative minister of state for universities and science, dismissed provision for a way for students to enrol on the electoral list at the same time as they register with their new institutions. Despite apparent cross-party support, and the backing of Universities UK, Johnson said that ‘requiring providers to carry out electoral registration, particularly when there are other means of students enrolling on the electoral register, is not the best way forward.’ This, in my opinion, is a huge shame and something that I would back a future Labour government to readdress.

Students may well swing elections, but they are key parts of the communities where they put those vital Xs in boxes. I am proud of the student populations in my city and I am proud that they queued on that sunny day in June to exercise their right to vote. The young people in our area sensed that change was in the air; they wanted to be a part of that change. It was not all about tuition fees either as too many Conservatives are too keen to squeal. Students voted to save our National Health Service; students voted against a hard Brexit and students voted because they care an awful lot about the communities they have chosen to join.

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Rosie Duffield is member of parliament for Canterbury. She tweets at @RosieDuffield1

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